Moto E review: Redefining the budget smartphone

Mike Homnick

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When Motorola launched the Moto X, it was met with mostly favorable reviews. Praised for its battery life and customization features through Moto Maker, the smartphone garnered quite a bit of attention. This was just the beginning of Motorola’s new lineup of smartphones, but it looks like the company is engaged in a race to the bottom of the Android phone market. 

Motorola’s followup to the X came in the form of the Moto G, an even cheaper smartphone with a modest set of specifications, aimed at emerging markets. It cost only $179 off-contract and was destined to become Brazil’s number one smartphone. Now the once Google-owned company is back with yet another cheap smartphone, even more humble than its predecessor: the Moto E

At only $129 off-contract, the Moto E ships with a set of specifications that justify its price point and little more. Essentially a slightly lower-end Motorola Atrix from 2011, the Moto E isn’t without a few surprises, like Gorilla Glass 3 and a water-resistant splash guard. 

Hardware that gets the job done

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The Moto E comes equipped with a 4.3-inch qHD (960x540) display, along with a 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 processor. Since this is a budget smartphone, you’re also going to find specs like 1GB RAM and a 5-megapixel rear camera, but a front-facing camera is notably missing. With 4GB of internal storage, and only 2.21GB available to the user, you’ll more than likely need to take advantage of the Micro SD card slot found underneath the back cover. 

The qHD display on the Moto E gives it a PPI (pixels per inch) of 256, which isn’t too bad, all things considered. The display itself isn't particularly remarkable, though color saturation and contrast is on point. Watching videos on the Moto E is an enjoyable, albeit cramped, experience. Viewing angles aren’t the best I’ve seen, but again, this is a $130 phone. 

On the front of the Moto E, you’ll find the standard assortment of sensors (proximity, ambient light), as well as a notification LED above the display. The lack of a front-facing camera will be a sore spot for anyone in the selfie generation, though you have to expect to give up some features on a phone this inexpensive.

Outside of the fake metal accents for the earpiece and microphone for calls, the Moto E is incredibly simple in its design. 

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The Moto E’s removable covers let you add a bit of personality to your phone.

Similar to its slightly bigger brother, the Moto G, the Moto E features removable back covers. They can be replaced in an assortment of colors, and removing them is also the way you get to the micro SIM card and Micro SD slots.

As far as performance is concerned, owners of the Moto E will likely be impressed as long as they remember this phone’s place in the pecking order. Overall, navigating the Android interface is smooth, though sometimes it can take a while for apps to launch. Occasional lag is present in a handful of simple operations, like scrolling in the web browser. 

Underneath the back cover is the Moto E’s non-removable 1980 mAh battery. Motorola promises an all-day battery. From the time I’ve been using the Moto E, I’d say that it comes pretty close to that promise.

In our battery tests, the Moto E managed to squeeze out 6 hours and 22 minutes. The test consisted of playing video constantly with the screen at full brightness until the battery ran out. For a little more than 6 hours with extremely heavy usage, the Moto E will easily be able to give you a lot more life in normal to moderate use. 

Feels better in the hand than you’d think

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The 4.3 inch display on the Moto E seems incredibly small, but unlike a majority of Android smartphones today, it fits in your hand beautifully. Oh, how the smartphone market has changed. 

The use of soft touch on the back of the cover helps the in-hand feel of the Moto E, but you never once forget that it’s just a plastic phone. Between the size of the phone and the finish on the back cover, the Moto E feels much better in the hand than you’d expect it to. 

An expected, so-so camera


The Moto E’s camera app is very simple, if not dumbed down a bit.

The Moto E’s camera is going to be pretty basic, so one shouldn’t expect much from the experience. The 5-megapixel camera is capable of taking decent shots in good lighting that should be perfectly fine for sharing on social networks and the like. Anything more than that is asking too much of it.

The camera app comes with a handful of features, including panorama, HDR, control exposure, geo-tagging, 16:9 widescreen toggle, and shutter tone. Like the rest of the Moto family, the user taps on the screen to take a photo or on the small icon off to the side of the display to record video.

Speaking of recording video, the Moto E can only record up to 854x480 resolution. We’re still wondering exactly why Motorola gave the phone this limitation, as the Snapdragon 200 can indeed record in 720p HD

The UI of the camera software is about as simplified as you can get, though some looking for a more advanced camera application can head to the Google Play Store. On our unit, the Google Camera was not found in a search from the Play Store, but worked just fine when side-loading it. 

Essentially stock Android


The Moto E’s software hasn’t deviated much from stock, vanilla Android.

Like the other handsets in its family, the Moto E comes with a software experience that’s essentially stock Android. There are a small handful of pre-installed applications that you won’t find on a Nexus device, but you’ll be able to disable most of everything in the settings if you so choose. 

The Moto E ships with Android 4.4.2 KitKit out of the box, and Motorola promises timely updates for the mini phone. While shipping with the latest and greatest version of the operating system is a nice selling point, it doesn’t seem that important for this phone. If someone is buying the Moto E and doesn’t care about missing some simple features like a front-facing camera, we have our doubts that they’ll care about what OS version the phone is running on. Nonetheless, there’s no complaints with the KitKat treatment on the Moto E.

If you want a little more “Google” in your Moto E, you may be happy to know that the Google Now Launcher can be sideloaded with no issues. 

A good option for the low-end market

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The Moto E could indeed end up being the next hit of a phone for Motorola. It’s a smartphone that does exactly what it promises to do, and it’s price range leaves no room for argument.

At $129 off-contract, the Moto E is one heck of a deal. Still, there’s now a Moto G that supports global LTE for $90 more, along with a more handsome set of specs. Considering that you might need to get a Micro SD card not long after buying the E, you might find that the Moto G fits the bill more.

If you’re in the US, there’s no reason to get the Moto E on contract. You can walk into any major US carrier or accompanying website and get an on-contract smartphone that’s at least twice as powerful as the Moto E. For example, Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T offer the LG G2, an incredibly powerful smartphone by comparison, for free on contract.

It likely won’t take the Moto E very long to prove its worth to the world, emerging market or not. It proves itself by being a great backup phone you can buy without issue off-contract and may be a good option for the first-time smartphone buyer.

Motorola’s strategy to tackle the low-end market may not be the most glamorous, but it sure looks like this model is doing well for the company. The Moto E stays light on its feet and easy on the pocket, making it a low-end force to be reckoned with. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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